In England a new breed of football is raging | Page 2 | Sunday Observer

In England a new breed of football is raging

7 August, 2022
Walton and Hersham play in the eighth tier English football
Walton and Hersham play in the eighth tier English football

Their average league gate last season was 296 - yet they have more followers on TikTok than six Premier League clubs and their owners are younger than most of the players they sign.

Welcome to Walton & Hersham, “home of the world’s youngest football club owners”.

School friends Jack Newton, Calogero Scannella, Sartej Tucker, Thomas Bradbury, Ben Madelin, Stephan Karidi and Reme Edetanlen were 19 years old when they scraped together their student loans to buy the Surrey non-league club in 2019.

Three years and two promotions later, the Swans are cashing in on a rapidly growing social media presence, which has resulted in shirt sales “to places you have never heard of”.

As Walton & Hersham get ready to launch their 2022-23 season at home to Kennington in the extra preliminary round of the FA Cup on Saturday, the young co-owners tell BBC Sport of their plans to shake up the non-league scene.

“At first, we all thought buying a club was an absolutely crazy idea,” says Tucker, Walton & Hersham’s director of operations and media. “How could anyone think this would work?”

Swans chairman Newton adds: “It’s much easier running a club with your mates because you know you can ultimately speak what’s on your mind, which you wouldn’t be able to do in a professional capacity.”

Having won promotion to the eighth tier of English football after amassing 91 points from 38 games last season, Walton & Hersham cannot be accused of being a pub team.

Yet in 2019, The Mill pub in Kingston upon Thames became the regular meeting place for the seven to discuss buying the 77-year-old club.

Walton & Hersham defeated a Brighton team managed by Brian Clough in the 1973-74 FA Cup, once had Ballon d’Or winner Sir Stanley Matthews as president, while striker Nathan Ellington played for them before going on to appear for West Brom in the Premier League.

In 1973, they played at Wembley in front of 41,000 fans in the penultimate FA Amateur Cup final, defeating Slough Town 1-0.

By 2019, the Swans were about to be relegated to the 10th tier and long-term owner Alan Smith was looking to sell.

“The whole idea stemmed through Calogero,” says Newton. “He had been going to games and got speaking to the owner. He got the idea they were trying to move on.”

The seven put together a document to present to Smith, outlining their plans for the club.

“We even put down what GCSE grades each of us had got,” adds Newton.

“We barely had any money going into this. We were 19-year-old students who scraped together student loans to finance the whole thing. That’s why there were seven of us. It was like a couple of thousand of pounds each.”

It is not only on the pitch where the Swans have enjoyed success since the ‘Class of 2018’ - the year they all left school - swept through the gates at the Elmbridge Sports Hub, where the club play.

The young owners have used their social media skills to build an impressive online following many Premier League clubs would be proud of.

Walton & Hersham have a following of 753,700 on the video hosting service TikTok - more than Nottingham Forest (210,200), Fulham (272,100), Brighton & Hove Albion (344,500), Southampton (440,700), Crystal Palace (459,100) and Bournemouth (585,700).

A 32-second clip posted towards the end of last season has been viewed 3.5m times.

“We posted short matchday vlogs throughout last season - a one minute highlights reel of every single game,” says Tucker.

“That enabled people from around the world to buy into our story.” Last season, the Swans partnered with Manchester-based company Classic Football Shirts to distribute their kits worldwide.

The partnership resulted in the Swans selling replica kits to more than 30 countries in six continents, including the Atlantic island of St Pierre and Miquelon, inhabited by just 6,000 people.

“For a non-league club to be able to sell kits into every continent of the globe is crazy,” adds Tucker.

“People are really interested in our story and what we are trying to do. At our current rate, we should hit one million TikTok followers by the end of October.”

The past three years has not all been smooth, but the young co-owners are learning as they go along.

“As soon as we took over, we made changes to the club badge but didn’t really consult the fans about it,” says Tucker. “They are proud of the club’s traditions.

“Early on, we needed to communicate with them and since then we have gained that experience and put it to good use.”

The arrival of the young co-owners has been the talk of boardrooms in the Combined Counties League, where Walton & Hersham have enjoyed back-to-back promotions. They start 2022-23 in the Isthmian League South Central Division.

“We were at a neutral ground for a the league cup final in May and the dress code was suit and tie but it must have been 25C,” says Newton.

“We turned up in replica shirts and shorts. We didn’t get offered any complimentary drinks. In opposition boardrooms or whenever a team comes to us, they are quite surprised how young we are.

“But there has been an influx of younger people running clubs and we do have chats with them because you can learn quite a bit from these guys.”